A recent study found a link between chemical hair dyes and straighteners and an increased risk of breast cancer. We look at what it means and some alternatives to chemical-based hair dye.

A study published in the International Journal of Cancer showed research by United States scientists that has sobering and relevant news for all women who use chemical hair dyes or straighteners. The study found a significant link between breast cancer and the use of permanent hair dyes.

More than 46,700 women in the U.S. participated in the study and were followed for about eight years. The women were selected through the Sister Study, a group of women who all have a sister who has been diagnosed with a form of breast cancer. This program is run through the National Institute of Environmental Health, which, along with the Office of Health Assessment and Translation (National Toxicology Program) and the Department of Epidemiology of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, conducted the research for this study.

The occurrence of breast cancer among American women is high and is increasing. The study looked at the use of permanent hair dyes as a potential risk for breast cancer, and points out that hair dye and chemical straightener use is widespread:

 “It has been estimated that more than one-third of women above the age of 18 in the United States use hair dye. Hair products contain more than 5,000 chemicals, including some mutagenic and endocrine-disrupting properties such as aromatic amines.”

Aromatic amines have been found to induce tumors in the mammary glands of rats and can reach breast tissue of women. Chemical straighteners, the study explains, contain a mixture of chemicals—including the carcinogen formaldehyde—as an active ingredient.

Self-application of permanent hair dye and straighteners or application to others was found to pose a higher breast cancer risk. It was reported in the study that African-American women who use chemical hair dye are at a 45 percent higher risk of developing breast cancer, and those who use it regularly every five to eight weeks are at a 60 percent higher chance of developing breast cancer. A seven percent higher risk of developing breast cancer was observed in white women using permanent dyes. Permanent hair dye was observed to increase the risk of breast cancer for the whole sample.

Straightener use was shown to increase breast cancer risk by 18 percent, with a higher usage being reported among black women than non-Hispanic white women, showing a higher risk the more frequent the use. Semi-permanent dye was shown to increase risk when applied to others, as well as a higher risk of postmenopausal breast cancer associated with the use of semi-permanent hair dye and straighteners used in a nonprofessional application and personal use.

As the study concludes:

“In conclusion, these findings from a large, prospective cohort with a sufficient sample size to separately evaluate results for white and black women provide evidence to support the relationship of hair dye and straightener use with breast cancer risk and highlight potential differences in associations by ethnicity. As hair dye and straighteners are common exposures, these findings have the potential for substantial public health impact.”

What Are the Alternatives to Non-Chemical Hair Dye? 

Hearing about this made us wonder what options there are out there for non-chemical hair dye, and how well they work. We did a little digging and have a few options to share with you, as alternatives to the box and chemical-based dyes for the next time you need a touch-up or a drastic change.


Coffee is good for covering grays and can add deeper tones to hair. The stronger, the better. Simply brew it, cool it, and mix with a leave-in conditioner and a few tablespoons of grounds. Apply to hair and leave on for about an hour, rinse well, and enjoy. Tea is also said to work; black tea to cover darker hair and chamomile to lighten blonde hair. Rinsing with apple cider vinegar will help the color last.

Carrot or Beet Juice

These are old standbys that can add orange to reddish tones to hair and can be used alone or together. Once you have your desired hue simply apply, let it dry, and leave it on as long as you can. Again, rinsing with apple cider vinegar will hold the color in. If the color isn’t dark enough, it can be repeated a few times to accomplish the color depth desired.

Lemon Juice

Lemon juice is a well-known way to lighten darker hair. It also works well on lighter hair, to being hair a few tones lighter. This one takes a while and several applications as it's a very subtle effect.


Henna is used often for temporary tattoos and can be used to lighten and add reddish tones to hair. A plant and water mash can be made at home and applied, or there are several henna-based natural products on the market that are ready to use.

Food Coloring

For folks who want that red, blue, or purple can use food coloring, but it will only last for a little while and may need to be cut off afterward, as it will fade and may not return to the natural tone.

Herbal Dyes

There are a number of herbal hair dye products on the market, and certain herbs such as sage are said to darken hair and cover grays when brewed into a tea and applied to hair.

"Organic" Hair Dyes

There are several products on the market that claim to be organic hair dye, however, without trying each and everyone and knowing exactly what goes into them, we cannot vouch that these are organic, contain no chemicals, or actually work.

Colored Shampoos and Rinses

There are plenty of shampoos and temporary rinses on store shelves and in salons that can add that bit of color, very subtly, and maintain the desired tone through regular uses. These, again, are a personal choice and must be picked through trial use to see what works for you, and if you can achieve the desired look and like the effect of these products.

Just Go Natural

Embracing one's natural color and tones, even if that means a gray hair or two. This one may not be the most popular or first thought of option, however, there is always the choice to stop coloring hair and just let it do what it wants to. This can be very liberating in a way, releasing oneself from the pressure of having to find the perfect color, and then do all the upkeep.

hair salon woman

Courtesy of StockSnap via Pixabay

This recent study is not the first one around to show a correlation between hair dyes and breast cancer, and it is a reminder that we are not always aware of the risk products may have to use. New research and connections to cancer are discovered all the time, as are treatment options and ways to fight cancer. Consulting with your hairstylist or colorist the next time you go in is also a good idea, and as industry professionals, they can share what they know about alternative options to chemical dye. 

We know the next time we want to color our hair, we will be looking for a non-chemical option, how about you?

Let us know in the comments what you think about all this, and please share any alternative ways to color hair that you may know of and have had success with.